I have to be honest, when the Falcons made Kemal Ishmael the first of three seventh round picks, I didn’t have a clue who he was. But I went back and watched tape of him while he was at Central Florida, and here is what I came away with…
Height: 5-10 3/4
School: Central Florida
Speed: 4.63 (Campus)
A four-year starter that started 49 consecutive games over his career at UCF at free safety. Ishmael was a highly productive run-defending safety that was a tackling machine during his days in school. He led the Golden Knights defense in tackles in his last three years, culminating in a senior year where he had career highs in every statistical category. He had a knack for making plays, including a total of 6 turnovers (3 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles). He set the school record for career tackles among defensive backs. A player that lacks ideal NFL measurables, but managed to get by with toughness, work ethic, and leadership. He hails from the same high school in Miami as Louis Delmas, currently with the Detroit Lions.
2012: 14 GP/14 GS, 124 tackles, 5 TFLs, 1 sack, 3 INTs, 4 PBU, 3 FF, 3 FR
2012 GAMES WATCHED
at UTEP (11/10): 1 target, 1 rec., 41 yards (41.0 YPA), 8 YAC (8.0 avg), 0 TDs, 1 INT; 2 missed tackles
at Tulsa (12/1): 1 tgt, 0 rec., 0 yds, 0 TD; 1 FF, 1 run stuff, 1 penalty (pass interference)
vs. Ball State (12/21): 2 tgt., 1 rec., 16 yds (8.0 YPA), 3 YAC (3.0 avg), 0 TDs, 1 PD; 1 FF, 1 QB Hit, 1 pressure
These are general skills required for his position and relative to not only top collegiate prospects, but also NFL players. Grades are based on a 10-point rating scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite
Speed (5.0) – Doesn’t have great speed to cover a lot of ground, but has decent speed. Shows good short-area burst when coming downhill to defend the run. Doesn’t have the ideal speed to match up in coverage as most NFL wideouts will run right by him.
Tackling (7.0) – Is a consistent and technically sound wrap tackler. Consistently sees what he hits. Not afraid to take on bigger guys at the point of attack, including squaring up and coming downhill against a 260-pound fullback running full steam. Is a solid hitter that isn’t afraid to throw his body around to deliver a shot to a ballcarrier. Understands angles and has a good nose for the ball, which usually puts him in a position to make the play against the run. His lack of size hurts him as NFL-sized backs and tight ends will give him trouble. He’ll miss his fair share at the next level because of that, but for the most part is and should remain a reliable, open-field tackler.
Man Coverage (3.0) – Doesn’t play with hips or balance you want in a guy that is comfortable working in man coverage. Tends to grab receivers when working against them, which can lead to some penalties. Lack of speed and size will make it difficult for him to cover most NFL receivers and tight ends downfield. Might just be limited to covering backs in the flat or any other receiver on shorter routes. Does his best work when he’s able to keep things in front of him, rather than being asked to turn and run with opposing players.
Zone Coverage (4.5) – Is comfortable working either in Cover-1 or Cover-2 alignments as that was predominantly what he did at UCF. Does a decent job as a centerfielder not letting receivers get behind him and isn’t often out of position when working the deeper half of the field. But his lack of ideal speed, range, and ball skills limit his ability to impact in zone coverage.
Ball Skills (5.5) – Shows ball skills on the few opportunities he was in position to make a play in coverage. Didn’t always do a great job tracking the deep ball in the air. His knack for stripping the ball indicates he does possess ball skills there. Also has a good nose for the ball and is consistently around it.
Range (4.0) – Lack of speed limits him here. Struggles to make plays outside the numbers because of that, as the majority of his positive plays in coverage and against the run come between the hashmarks where his ability to cover ground is not challenged as much.
Ishmael is a run-defending safety that is active, heady, and tough. But his lack of size and speed will limit his effectiveness at the next level as most of starting NFL players are simply on a different level athletically and physically than him. He’s a player that projects at best as a career backup on defense. But he becomes draftable largely because of his potential to impact on special teams. He is only worth a seventh round pick at that point, but is a worthwhile pickup at the tail-end of the round because of his potential on special teams.
Grade: 2.6 – Might be a productive college player that is usually lacking in several key areas that make you think their ability to stick on the next level is limited. Usually players that can only play on special teams, and have the skillset to be effective there. But if he is asked to contribute offensively or defensively, he’ll be overmatched in all but the most limited role. Click here to read more on my grading system.
Earlier I mentioned Louis Delmas as an alumnus of Ishmael’s high school. I mentioned that because I believe Ishmael could be compared to Delmas, albeit a poor man’s version of him. But Delmas is a more explosive and dynamic player which allows him to be a quality starting safety with the Lions when healthy, while Ishmael will struggle to do that. But like Delmas, Ishmael’s lack of size will likely lead him to be more susceptible to injury at the next level because his “take no prisoners” style of play will cause a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on him.
Simply put, Ishmael is going to struggle to compete on defense. But he certainly has the capacity and potential to make up for it on special teams. The type of player I ultimately could see him developing into a Jamaal Fudge-type of player. Fudge was another undersized safety that was predominantly a special teams guy and came over from Jacksonville alongside Mike Smith in 2008. In the season finale that year, with Lawyer Milloy injured, Fudge started that game (his lone start of his career) and had a fairly solid game (10 tackles). Like Fudge, Ishmael ultimately could develop into a player that is competent enough to start in a pinch for a game or two and you’d be comfortable with him in that role. But with extended reps he’ll likely get exposed and thus filling in for more than a game or two would likely net negative results.
I think if he was develop into a contributor on defense, it might come in the dime subpackage. His lack of speed, range, and cover skills will limit how effective he can be as a centerfielder in comparison to a player like Thomas DeCoud, who is not lacking in those areas (speed and range are arguably DeCoud’s best attributes). Instead, playing up in the box and acting as a second linebacker is probably suited best to Ishmael’s skillset. That way he’s not forced to run downfield with faster receivers or bigger tight ends, and can cover backs on the shorter routes which won’t stress his speed issues as much. While he’s not afraid to mix it up in the box with blockers, again his lack of size hurts him because it makes it hard for him to get off blocks against tight ends and linemen. So even then, it’s not really ideal and he’s probably not going to be the type of guy that merits more than a handful of snaps in said subpackage. And more than likely, he’s going to be the backup to the dime specialist, as opposed to the guy himself. I just don’t see him being a major contributor on defense outside that role.
Where he is going to impact in Atlanta is on special teams. The play against Tulsa, where he took on a 260-pound fullback really stood out to me. In that situation, most players would have ducked their head, lowered a shoulder, dove at the back’s legs rather than taking on a guy heads up that has 60 pounds on you. That wasn’t the case with Ishmael. He naturally got a little more than he gave, but he made the tackle. That sort of mentality years ago would have been perfect for being a “wedge buster” on special teams. Now the league has largely eliminated the wedge from the game, but that mentality and playing style still applies. Special teams is still an aspect of that game that features a lot of collisions, and coupled with his understanding of angles and consistency as a tackler, Ishmael is ideally suited to carve out a significant role there. I don’t think he’s likely going to be the guy that is first down the field due to his lack of speed, but he’s likely to be the guy that cleans up the play after the initial speedster is juked by the returner. He’s the type of guy that I think could consistently record double-digit tackles on special teams, and even has the upside to be a multiple Pro Bowler. He could certainly fill the shoes left by Eric Weems in that capacity. And I also think his knack for creating turnovers as a senior at UCF could translate to his ability to get a couple of forced fumbles at the next level on special teams coverage.
Everything I’ve seen, read, and heard about Ishmael also suggests he’s a hard worker that will take pride even if he’s just a special teams player. And then over time, he could develop into a better version of Jamaal Fudge that could be a quality role player with the added experience and comfort he gains with time with the defensive scheme.
Ultimately how long Ishmael plays with the Falcons will be entirely dependent on his special teams prowess. If he lives up to the potential I believe he has, then I think he could have a very long, productive NFL career in Atlanta comparable to Elbert Shelley. If not, then three or so years down the line the Falcons will replace him with a player of comparable skill on special teams that has more upside to contribute defensively. But if I’m placing my bets, I’m betting on the former happening and Ishmael having a long, productive Falcon career as a force on special teams.